A while back, I ended up playing a game of Psychosis – a board game with questions loosely based around psychology studies, some of which are even still in-date. A more interactive element comes from group activities where Player A gets to answer a question in secret, while the others guess their answer. Usually, these take the format of “So tell me, __________, what is your favourite colour?” – but mostly a bit more interesting than that tepid example.
So I was asked, as you do in the game, “So tell me, ____________, do you think people are A) Mostly good, B) Mostly bad”. I think it may have been more of a scale, but I forget the precise details.
Do I think people are, generally speaking, good or bad?
That sparked off a bit of a debate, as these people know me quite well.
On the one hand, I display a huge amount of cynicism toward people. I generally believe the worst in them. I know the harm they cause, and my cynical reaction is to literally expect it at every turn. If someone is evil, I don’t seem to treat it as a mind-blowing exception to the pattern. On the other hand, came one argument, someone wouldn’t think such a thing if they didn’t fundamentally believe humans were, deep-down, good… but perhaps misguided. A social cynic would have to care about people, and care about their goodness, to rant and rave when they see it going awry.
And I suppose they got it right. I believe people are fundamentally good. I just also believe they’re too stupid to really know what that means.
Everyone wants to be “good”. The connotations of that term alone drive people toward it. It’s positive, it’s beneficial, it’s virtuous and admirable pretty much by definition. But even ignoring the definition, people try to act good – no-one truly wants to cause excessive harm and suffering, we all want to benefit the rest of the world. Even if all they have to go on is “to be good is to be like God”, they’ll instinctively drive toward the harm-reducing, well-being-maximising acts, and the Argumentum ad Dictionarium only comes out in the wash of post hoc rationalisation. We’re driven to be good, rather than bad, and broadly agree on what it means to act those ways even if we disagree when it comes to the tedious, academic unpacking of those terms.
The exceptions are usually driven either by a pragmatic need to break the vague Rules of Goodness (committing a theft because you need money) or a misunderstanding of what constitutes benefit to people (committing a theft because you believe it to be victimless or out of quasi-nihilistic self-interest). Even in the edge-cases of outright psychopathy, we attribute actions to a misfiring and a misinterpretation of morality rather than a drive to be evil.
Calling those exceptions “stupidity” may be an over-simplification – and I have something saved in my drafts folder about a better and more powerful definition of “stupid” to work with. Yet, “stupid” conveys the idea: we want to be good, we all agree that good means maximising well-being and reducing suffering… But we suck at the analytical component of figuring out what that all means in reality.
Mother Theresa thought she was doing good, and reducing suffering, and bringing dignity to people through bringing them, and herself, closer to God – yet those with a keen eye for detail may have seen suffering increase as she deprived the poor and sick of medical treatment while keeping them in squalor, and then spent her donation money on establishing convents. We can’t deny her intentions to do good, and her justifications that her acts were, ultimately, good. And I don’t think it’s a mere disagreement on the definition of good – she wanted to reduce harm and increase well-being, to bring dignity to people. She simply approached it in a… well, somewhat questionable way from the perspective of an outsider with identical motivations and values. Stupidity? Perhaps. Certainly a failure to objectively assess the situation and figure out exactly how to bring about more tangible well-being and happiness.
Look at, say, most racists, sexists or homophobes amongst others with an -ist or -phobe levelled at them. They probably don’t think that what they’re doing is bad. Even the hardened ones. They believe their opinions to be innocent and valid. They try to be good… at least, they don’t try to be evil. But do they understand the harm they cause? Is that because they’re stupid? Perhaps. “Stupid”, again, is not quite the right term – it’s the lack of a decent assessment of their actions.
This is perhaps where the social justice world fails to get through to them – by believing that a bigot is out to cause harm rather than simply misunderstanding whether they cause harm in the first place, they alienate rather than educate. If we approached them as having good intentions, we might be able to convince someone that their (erroneous) approach to implementing those intentions is where the harm comes from. People who say #AllLivesMatter just don’t understand the need to say #BlackLivesMatter, they don’t intend to say #BlackLivesDoNotMatter. Ignorance – not wilful ignorance, just plain, innocent, blameless ignorance – rather than malice is at work here.
“Where’s the harm?” is, ultimately, what hides underneath all the usual defences of hatred and intolerance. At the thin end, someone might defend a racist joke because “it’s just a joke!”; they’re asking where is the harm in something they perceive as truly harmless because they literally don’t see any harm derived from it. And it goes all the way to the extremes of “yes, I might be herding these people into a gas chamber, but, it’s just following orders so I’m not really complicit, and, besides, it’s purifying our race so is obviously beneficial – if we don’t gas this menace we’ll just suffer in the long term”. Okay, maybe that last one requires a little more work to get around… but it’s work we’ll happily do in the name of being good.
We’ll always find a motive to justify ourselves. We’ll always find a reasoning to back up our acts. We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t, fundamentally, driven to be good – because otherwise we’d be happy to admit that, yes, our actions are harmful to others and we don’t care. We’d admit to wanting to cause harm, minimise well-being, and be evil. Yet this is largely not what we see.
We wouldn’t be happy with flawed reasoning if we had the self-awareness to fully analyse it and come to a better conclusion, and then re-address our actions appropriately.
Or, in a soundbite; we want to be good, but we’re too dumb to figure out how to do it properly.